In my three years in office, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to law enforcement officials, constituents, and communities of color about improving public safety.
Last year, as many across our community and nation responded to the murder of George Floyd, these conversations took on new urgency as we discussed ways of reducing systemic bias, strengthening law-enforcement training, and ensuring all members of our community are safe.
It’s helpful to recognize how much agreement there is in within our community. I continue to be impressed with the commitment of our local law enforcement agencies to improving public safety, including ensuring that community members who are experiencing a mental health, addiction, or housing crisis quickly receive the appropriate help. There is no doubt that our community does not have enough psychiatric and addiction recovery professionals and services, and we do not have enough emergency and temporary housing.
We must continue to invest in public safety, including ensuring that law enforcement agencies have embedded mental health counselors and social workers to partner with police officers when assisting an individual in crisis.
Similarly, our state must continue to invest in mental health beds, addiction recovery treatment programs, and housing so that putting people in jail is not our only alternative for preventing self-harm.
We face a looming workforce shortage of law enforcement personnel as many police officers and deputies near retirement. To help with this problem, we increased funding for the state’s law enforcement academy, and I’m pleased to report that all four current classes are at capacity.
At the same time, we must do more to ensure local agencies can be fully staffed. Local sheriffs and police chiefs have asked—at times practically begged—county and city councils for increased funding over the last decade to pay their officers fairly and improve services.
Many of the bills passed in the 2021 legislative session incorporated feedback from the Fraternal Order of Police and continue our state’s commitment to de-escalation training, which was mandated by voters with the passage of I-940 in 2018. These are major pieces of legislation, and there were concerns about what police could and could not do in some emergencies.
For example, some worried that the use of force directives could prohibit the ability of police to respond to an individual who is in mental health crisis but not committing a crime.
A recent opinion by the state’s Attorney General clarifies that law enforcement have the authority to respond to these calls, even if the individual is not involved in criminal conduct.
Few bills are perfect when they are enacted, which is why listening to feedback from law enforcement and community groups is vital to improving these new laws. I’m working to do just that as I prepare for the 2022 legislative session, and I appreciate the time our law enforcement leaders are taking to discuss their concerns. The only way to move forward is if we continue to listen to each other and work together to keep everyone safe.
Rep. Dave Paul is an Oak Harbor resident who represents District 10 in the state House of Representatives.